‘Penisgate’ and the Case of Nude Ned – (the quagmire of censorship)

In a recent social media conversation, an artist claimed one of her paintings was excluded from an exhibition because it depicted a male nude. The exhibition was held in the Phyllis Palmer Gallery at Latrobe University Bendigo. Accusations of double standards and attitudes to female nudes versus male nudes soon followed. ‘Penisgate’, as it was dubbed, caused a flurry of outraged comments.

A short article by the Bendigo Weekly’s Dianne Dempsey, titled Nude Ned is Not Rude, appeared on July 24th, 2015, with a photograph of exhibition curator, and head lecturer of Painting & Drawing at the university, Mr Steve Turpie, standing in front of the two female nude works accepted into the exhibition. Both sides stated their cases. Steve Turpie dismissed claims the painting was rejected on the grounds of it being a male nude. ‘The decision was a curatorial one…We teach life drawing here for heaven’s sake. As if I’d reject a painting because it was a male nude.’[1]

To add to the intrigue, no one I’ve spoken to has seen the Nude Ned, which depicts bushranger Ned Kelly, with his face covered by his iconic, armoured helmet. Despite requests for the artist to post an image on social media, a photo of the painting in question failed to appear. There is a different version of Nude Ned on the artist’s Facebook page.

I did an internet search for ‘Nude Ned Kelly’ and found many ah…interesting images, but not a Nude Ned. I did find a censorship rating for children for the 2003 movie, starring Heath Ledger as Ned Kelly.

Was this censorship, and if so was it unconscious or blatant? Was this a case of double standards about male and female nudity? Something odd was happening, because people were talking about a painting they hadn’t seen. ‘Penisgate’, was shaping up as a serious issue. As an artist, I was incensed, but as a budding writer – what an opportunity to bring my writing knowledge and sleuthing skills to the fore.

To uncover the truth.

I emailed the Bendigo Weekly, asking if they’d taken a photo of the offending painting, and if so, why they hadn’t used it for their article. The chief editor, Mr Steve Kendall, promptly returned my email. The artist supplied photos of the three works, but he’d decided to use the best quality photo, which turned out to be the one taken by the paper’s professional photographer. The editor noted that while artists are broad-minded people, the general community mightn’t be ready for a Nude Ned when they opened up their paper.

A pattern was emerging. Censorship it seemed was everywhere, together with alleged double standards, and now, concerns about the quality of the work, and the photos of the work!

It wasn’t a minefield of controversy, it was a quagmire!

I started to re-think nudity and what’s acceptable for public consumption. There’s a long tradition of the nude in art. In 2014, Bendigo Art Gallery held an amazing exhibition, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece[2], which included many nude statues and images.

However, the point is that people choose to go and see the exhibitions. The exhibition might be in a public space, but if there are nude forms, it isn’t generally out on the streets, or in a newspaper.

In the end, I believe the artist’s claims weren’t valid. As a past student, I can verify that Latrobe Bendigo’s Visual Arts department uses male and female models for life drawing classes, and to my knowledge has never rejected a work based on censorship towards male nudity.

The curator based his decision, solely on the work’s quality, and the matter should have ended there. The artist took it into the public arena, together with inflated, and unsubstantiated accusations. The final call belonged to the curator for the exhibition, and with the editor for the article.

So, my hope that ‘Penisgate’ was going to be a huge story was deflated, although, there is a postscript. I can’t include an image of the Nude Ned, for legal reasons. Ironic isn’t it!


[1] Dempsey, D 2015, ‘Nude Ned is Not Rude’ Bendigo Weekly, 24th July, viewed 7th August, 2015, <http://www.bendigoweekly.com.au/news/ned-nude-not-rude>

[2] Bendigo Art Gallery, 2014, The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece, viewed 13th August, 2015, <http://www.bendigoartgallery.com.au/Exhibitions/Past_Exhibitions/2014_Exhibition_Archive/The_Body_Beautiful_in_Ancient_Greece>